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September 1993 Issue [Readings]

The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity

Adapted from “From Universality to Difference: Notes on the Fragmentation of the Idea of the Left.” Originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Contention: Debates in Society, Culture, and Science, a journal published by Indiana University Press.

The continuing dispute over “political correctness” in the academy is, in significant part, the consequence of a transformation in the core idea of the left: the weakening, even breakdown, of the ideals of a common humanity that have animated it for more than two centuries. Some, though not all, of the right’s attacks are disingenuous. For example, we hear much from the right about the dangerous “politicization” of English and women’s studies, but no complaint when it comes to economics or business. But this shouldn’t obscure a troubling irony: the right, traditionally the custodian of the privileges of the few, now speaks in an apparently general language of merit, reason, individual rights, and virtue that transcends politics, whereas much of the left is so preoccupied with debunking generalizations and affirming the differences among groups—real as they often are—that it has ceded the very language of universality that is its birthright.

Instead, the left in recent years has had trouble going beyond what has come to be called “identity politics”—a politics that is rooted more in group self-assertion than in attempts to create broad alliances. Of course, oppressed groups must always struggle to overcome their second-class status; equality demands no less. But what began in the late 1960s as an assertion of dignity by various groups, a remedy for exclusion and denigration and a demand by the voiceless for representation, has developed its own habits and methods of silencing. At the extreme, in the academy but also outside it, standards and traditions are now viewed as nothing more than camouflage for particular interests. Many a dispute is premised on the idea that there is a fundamental difference between X (women, say, or people of color) and Y (white males); that X has been oppressed or silenced by Y and should therefore be hired, promoted, and specially represented on reading lists and at conferences.

The precursors of today’s advocates of identity politics were those scholars who, in the 1960s, were active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements-movements predicated on the universal values of equality, justice, and peace. These political campaigns and their underlying universalist assumptions shaped the work of these scholars in the early 1970s–making women’s history and literature legitimate, bolstering labor studies, rethinking slavery and the slaughter of the Indians, opening up the canon to hitherto silenced traditions. But unlike this generation of professors, most of today’s young academics had no political experience in mass movements for general change and, for that matter, no contact with a successful left-of-center Democratic Party. For them, fighting over appropriate language, symbolic representation (whether in the syllabus, curriculum, or faculty), affirmative action, or even musical styles is an end in itself, the principal way of claiming their politics. These post-Sixties radicals found universalism empty or–worse–a cover for white, straight, male power.

The intensification of identity politics is inseparable from a fragmentation of what I will call “commonality politics”—a frame of understanding that acknowledges “difference” but sees it against the background of what is not different, what is shared among groups. In large measure, things fell apart for the left because the center could not hold. For chronologically, the breakup of commonality politics predates the thickening of identity politics. The centrifugal surge, on campus and off, is obviously, in part, a product of the last quarter century of American demographic trends: growing immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa; white flight from cities; the integration of campuses in the wake of civil-rights victories; growing competition for scarce resources. These upheavals have taken place within the longer history of emancipatory politics that has snaked forward through the West since the revolutions of 1776, 1789, and 1848.

During the last two centuries, believers in a common humanity clustered around the two great progressive ideals: the liberal ideal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and, later, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens; and the radical ideal that crystallized as Marxism. Such legitimacy as the left enjoyed in the West rested on its claim to a place in the story of universal human emancipation. Whatever its immense failures, defaults, and sins, the left aspired to address itself not to particular men and women but to all, in the name of their common standing. Whether liberals or socialists, reformers or revolutionaries, the men and women of the left aimed to persuade their listeners to see their common interest as citizens.

Liberals emphasized the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—ideals that, however trampled in practice by those who were white and male and propertied, nevertheless could at least in principle be appealed to by oppressed groups. Marx, too, framed his politics in universal terms, arguing that a universal class, the workers, were destined to overcome their particular differences and realize a common identity: the human being as maker, realizing his “species being” in the course of transforming nature.

From this point of view, the intellectual radicalism of the early 1960s can be seen as a search for a universalist politics that might take the place of a Marxism that by then had lost its legitimacy. The left turned to participatory democracy and civil rights. But participatory democracy, though theoretically available to everyone, was in practice tailored to students who had the time and energy to spend at endless meetings. And the civil-rights movement, initially framed in universalist terms, could unify the left only until legal segregation was defeated in 1964–65. Once integration and voting rights had been secured, at least on paper, the alliance between liberals and radicals, integrationists and separatists, was strained to the breaking point. Blacks began to insist on black leadership, even sometimes on exclusively black membership in the movement.

Soon, too, the pioneers of women’s liberation rose against male supremacy. One grouping after another demanded the recognition of its difference. Difference came to be felt more acutely than commonality.

The crack-up of the universalist new left was inevitable, though it was muted for a while by the exigencies of the Vietnam War and the commonalities of youth culture. If there seemed in the late 1960s to be one big movement, it was largely because there was one big war. But the divisions of race and then gender and sexual orientation proved far too deep to be overcome by any language of unification. There was a lingering rhetorical style of universalist radicalism, but the political passion broke up into separate caucuses.

The resulting identity politics deserves credit for inspiring powerful studies in history, literature, and all manner of ideas. It has also proved more exciting and more energizing to activists than the politics of commonality–especially in the 1980s, with fights over hiring, requirements, curricula, and so forth taking place during a time of increasingly scarce resources, For the participants in these post-Sixties movements, the benefits of identity politics have been manifold: they provide experiences of solidarity and belonging, and remedies for specific injustices, along with ready-made reservoirs of recruits. As advertising, marketing, cable TV, and popular music have grown more and more specialized, dividing the mass audience into progressively narrower segments, so has university politics.

The left’s attention is now paid to group self-assertion rather than, say, campaigns against poverty or the bankrupting of public education. As once-excluded territories have been recognized in the academy, any lingering aspiration for the universal has been largely abandoned. Whatever universalism now remains is based not so much on a common humanity as on a common enemy—the notorious White Male. While defenses of group rights often have a powerful logic, the idea of a common America and the idea of a unified left, both great legacies of the Enlightenment, have lost their force.

As a result, we find ourselves today in a most peculiar situation: the left and right have traded places, at least with respect to the sort of universalist rhetoric that can still stir the general public. Unable to go beyond the logic of identity politics, the disparate constituencies of the cultural left have ceded much political high ground to the right. Today, here and there on the left, one hears a half-whispered recognition that, beyond necessary demands for racial representation, feminist principles, gay rights, and so on, some common ground must be found: in campaigns for more economic equality and against poverty, unemployment, ecological depredation, and educational erosion. Ronald Reagan’s genius lay in his ability to demarcate common ground on the right. Unless it learns to speak its own language of commonality, the shards of the left will be condemned to their separate sectors, sometimes glittering, sometimes smashed, and mostly marginal.

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